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A Pennsylvania Prison Gets A Scandinavian-Style Makeover – And Shows How The US Penal System Could Become More Humane

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Prisoners and staff share responsibility for taking care of the fish tank at the ‘Little Scandinavia’ housing unit in a Pennsylvania prison. Commonwealth Media Services

The United States has the largest number of people incarcerated in the world – about 25% of all people imprisoned worldwide are in American prisons and jails.

Overcrowding, violence and long sentences are common in U.S. prisons, often creating a climate of hopelessness for incarcerated people, as well as people who work there.

Additionally, correctional officers, often challenged by long shifts, worries about their own safety and stressful working conditions, have a life expectancy that is on average a decade less than the general population.

Some advocates have called for diverting people away from prisons, especially low-risk individuals. Others encourage shorter sentences and earlier releases.

But reform efforts could also extend to changing the prison environment itself.

We are American and Norwegian criminologists. While trying to better understand our countries’ justice systems, we have spent significant time in correctional facilities across Scandinavia and the U.S. There, we often try to identify overlooked similarities within these very different places – and ways they could learn from each other.

A recent collaboration between correctional services in Pennsylvania and several Scandinavian countries presents an opportunity to test these ideas. One Pennsylvania prison unit we are researching adapts elements from Scandinavian prisons, and offers a window into what drawing from other penal systems might look like in the U.S.

A man in a green outfit walks past a large mural of a world in an indoor hallway.
This remodeled prison unit in Pennsylvania is home to 64 male residents.
Creative Commonwealth Media

Prisons in Scandinavia

Correctional systems throughout much of Scandinavia are guided by a general set of philosophical principles. In Sweden, these standards emphasize rehabilitation and encourage meaningful change, so incarcerated people can lead a better life.

In Norway, core values of safety, transparency and innovation are considered fundamental to the idea of creating normality in prison, the feeling that life as part of a community continues, even behind walls and bars.

Adhering to these principles means that, in some cases, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, work in jobs that prepare them for employment and cook their own meals.

Prisons in Scandinavia are also small, with some housing roughly a dozen people – which is possible, given relatively low incarceration rates in the region.

In most cases, people in prison in Norway have access to many of the same social and educational services and programs as people who are not incarcerated.

Many prisons, especially in Norway, are designed in a fundamentally different way than in the U.S. Proximity to nature is often considered, for example. Cells in Norway are also for a single person – not multiple people, as in most cases in the U.S. Norway, perhaps unsurprisingly, has attracted many international visitors who come to observe their prison system.

Importantly, correctional officers have at least a two-year, university-level education and are directly involved in rehabilitation and planning for the incarcerated person’s re-entry into the world outside of prison. In the U.S., most officers receive just a few weeks of training, and their work focuses mostly on maintaining safety and security.

It is also worth noting that recidivism rates in Scandinavia are low. In Norway, it has been reported that less than half of people released from prison are rearrested after three years. In Pennsylvania, that figure is closer to 70%. The implications for correctional systems are profound.

Norway and the US

There are, of course, other fundamental differences between the Scandinavian countries and the U.S.

Norway, like the other countries in the region, is much smaller than the U.S., in both population and geography. Crime rates are lower there than in the U.S., and social support systems are more robust. Gun violence is also almost unheard of.

In Norway, the longest prison sentence in most cases is 21 years – with most people serving less than a year. In Pennsylvania, life sentences are not uncommon, and many crimes – including nonviolent ones – can results in decades of imprisonment.

Despite this, the two systems may not be completely incompatible, at least not when the goal is to reform the prison environment.

The Scandinavian Prison Project

In State Correctional Institution Chester, known as SCI Chester, a medium-security prison located just outside of Philadelphia, a correctional officer-guided team has worked since 2018 to incorporate Scandinavian penal principles into its own institution. Based on their direct experiences, the correctional officers and facility leaders sought to reconsider what incarceration could look like at SCI Chester. This initiative has uniquely focused on developing a single housing unit within the prison.

In 2019, the group, which also included outside researchers and correctional leaders, spent weeks visiting a range of facilities across Scandinavia, and the officers worked in Norwegian prisons alongside peer mentors.

In March 2020, six men in SCI Chester – each sentenced to life in prison – were selected to participate in the project as mentors. They then moved on to the new housing unit, which had come to be known as “Little Scandinavia.”

In early 2022, the researchers and correctional leaders returned for a follow-up visit to several prisons in Sweden. Though delayed by the pandemic, 29 more residents of SCI Chester were selected from the prison’s general population to join the Scandinavian-inspired housing unit that May.

With single cells, a communal kitchen, Nordic-like furnishings and a landscaped, outdoor green space, Little Scandinavia looks unlike any other U.S. prison. Plants grow throughout the common areas. A large fish tank, maintained by staff and residents, is the centerpiece of an area designed to encourage people to gather.

A grocery program allows all of the residents to purchase fresh foods – a rarity in prison – and work directly with staff to send orders to a local store.

Each day, residents are expected to go to work, treatment or school, all within the prison.

Importantly, the correctional officers overseeing Little Scandinavia have received a range of training to facilitate communication with their assigned residents.

Drawing from Norway’s model, there is also a uniquely low ratio of trained staff to incarcerated men – one officer for eight residents, compared with the typical average of one staff member for 128 residents.

Although the community is still evolving, there have been no acts of violence, as some speculated would happen – even with access to kitchen equipment.

An overhead shot shows an open looking common room with some people in green prison uniforms sitting and standing.
Little Scandinavia has other features, like couches and a shared kitchen, that are designed to give prisoners a sense of autonomy over their space.
Creative Commonwealth Media

Learning from Little Scandinavia

As part of our research, we are examining correctional staff’s first-hand experiences with this international project.

Some analyses have shown that a Scandinavian approach, focused on normality and reintegration, can be potentially good for correctional officers, boosting their morale, independence and well-being.

Incarcerated people have also reported feeling safer and having more positive relationships with staff and other people living in the prisons. They also indicated greater satisfaction with their access to food and the reintegration support available to them.

SCI Chester shows that it is, in fact, possible to adapt Scandinavian-style penal philosophies and incorporate them into a Pennsylvania prison. This effort is a pilot, however, with significant costs, foundational support from committed leaders, and in partnership with many outside experts.

It remains to be seen how these efforts will play out in the long term. Data from this project, and rigorous research on other efforts, can inform conversations about what the future of prison reform in the U.S. could look like.

After all, as they say in Norway, a prison is responsible for enabling the people who are incarcerated to return to society as good neighbors – a fact that, in most cases, is as true in Philadelphia as it is in Stockholm or Oslo.

The Conversation

Jordan M. Hyatt and Synøve N. Andersen have received funding from Arnold Ventures, The Scandinavian-American Foundation, and the Nordic Research Council for Criminology (NsFK).

Synøve Nygaard Andersen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Georgia On The Nation's Mind: 5 Essential Reads

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Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia waves to a crowd on election night. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shortly after his reelection on Dec. 6, 2022, Rev. Raphael Warnock talked about his political journey in a state better known for its racist history of suppressing the Black vote.

“I am Georgia,” Warnock said. “A living example and embodiment of its history and its hope, of its pain and promise, the brutality and possibility.”

Warnock’s senate campaign against his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, occurred at a time when Georgia voters faced a slew of new election law reforms that the state’s lawmakers said were necessary to protect election integrity. But civil rights advocates characterized the reforms as the latest version of suppression efforts targeting Black voters.

During his speech, Warnock was clear on his position.

“The fact that millions of Georgians endured hours in lines … that wrapped around buildings and went on for blocks, lines in the cold, lines in the rain, is most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist,” Warnock said. “Instead, it is proof that you, the people, will not allow your voices to be silenced.”

As the campaign unfolded, The Conversation published several articles looking at the history of voting in Georgia and how race has played a significant role in shaping the state’s election laws.

1. New election reforms

Georgia’s GOP lawmakers overhauled the state’s election laws in 2021 – and critics argued that the target was Black voter turnout, not election fraud as claimed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other white conservative politicians.

Emory University Political Science Professor Richard Doner details the shameful history and breaks down the key changes in the state’s new voting law, SB 202, that emerged at a time of growing Black political power and GOP unproven conspiracy theories on election fraud.




À lire aussi :
Georgia’s GOP overhauled the state’s election laws in 2021 – and critics argue the target was Black voter turnout, not election fraud


2. Runoff elections usually produce better policies

Despite its racist history, Georgia’s runoff voting process is not inherently racist – as the 2022 campaign demonstrated with two Black men running against each other.

In fact, argues Westminster College Assistant Political Science Professor Joshua Holzer, runoff voting tends to produce better policies.

“This is because,” Holzer writes, “runoff elections often favor candidates who lean to the center, and center-leaning candidates seem to be more likely to respect human rights and provide better representation of a larger portion of the electorate.”




À lire aussi :
A brief history of Georgia’s runoff voting – and how this year’s contest between two Black men is a sign of progress


3. Georgia’s national importance

With Warnock’s victory, the Democrats control the Senate with 51 of the 100 seats and no longer need a deciding vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties in order to pass bills that support their legislative agenda.

But as political science scholar Richard Hargy explains, the campaign stood as another test of the influence former president Donald Trump holds within the Republican Party and as “an opportunity to improve their Senate seat tally ahead of a difficult election cycle in 2024.”




À lire aussi :
Georgia’s runoff election: why the result is so important to Biden and Trump


4. Runoffs elections have a cost

In Georgia, if no candidate receives 50% of the general election vote, there’s a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

And those races are expensive, writes political science professor John A. Tures.

Though the final tally for the 2022 runoff is not completed, in 2020, the campaigns cost at least $75 million statewide.

Despite the expense, runoff elections have an impact on voter turnout – and not for the better.

“The only consistent trend is that the runoff elections drew fewer voters than the general elections that preceded them,” Tures writes.




À lire aussi :
Georgia runoff elections are exciting, but costly for voters and democracy


5. Weak celebrity political candidates

In addition to race, another factor played a part in the Georgia campaign – Walker’s celebrity status.

Political science scholar Richard T. Longoria explains that while celebrity candidates have advantages in name recognition and media attention, they often lose their bids for public office.

“They lose for the same reasons other candidates lose,” Longoria writes. “If they take unpopular policy positions, they lose. If they are never considered to be serious candidates, they lose.”




À lire aussi :
Celebrities in politics have a leg up, but their advantages can’t top fundraising failures


Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

The Conversation

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Amid Coup, Countercoup Claims – What Really Went Down In Peru And Why?

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Clashes on the streets of Peru. Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images)

Peru has a new president following the ouster of former leader Pedro Castillo at the hands of the country’s Congress.

His removal followed an attempt by Castillo to cling to power by dissolving a Congress intent on impeaching him. Castillo’s opponents accused him of attempting a coup – a charge his supporters similarly levied in regards to his removal from office. The day ended with the former president in detention.

The Conversation asked Eduardo Gamarra, an expert on Latin American politics at Florida International University, to explain the wider context of Peru’s political crisis – and what could happen next.

Can you talk us through the events of Dec. 7, 2022?

In a nutshell, President Pedro Castillo thought he was going to be impeached and tried to move ahead of lawmakers by closing down Congress. He said he intended to rule by decree and reform the country’s constitutional court and judiciary. In effect, he challenged the armed forces to choose sides.

But the plan backfired. He announced that he was closing Congress, but Congress refused to be closed down. Instead, lawmakers went ahead with a previously planned impeachment trial and overwhelmingly voted to remove him from power. The military for its part rejected Castillo’s ploy.

Castillo was later arrested on a charge of violating a constitutional order. He was replaced by former Vice President Dina Boluarte, who was sworn in as president. Peru’s first female leader intends to serve until 2026.

A man in blue is seen inside a car with a police officer next to him in uniform
Former President Pedro Castillo was taken into custody.
Renato Pajuelo/AFP via Getty Images

Behind all this was a competition of legitimacy between Congress and the president – and Congress won.

How did it come to such a crisis point?

That isn’t easy to explain, and the wider background and political system needs to be understood first.

Peru has a hybrid system, in which both parliament and the presidency split power and can act against each other. So constitutionally, the president can dismiss Congress and call for new elections, and, at the same time, Congress can impeach and remove the president. But there is some ambiguity, and there is a case to say Castillo exceeded his constitutional powers in this instance.

The point of having such a system is that when there is a crisis of government, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a crisis of state. The prime minister can resign as head of a government, yet the president can remain in place for stability.

But in reality, it encourages instability. Congress has forced a president from office before. President Martín Vizcarra was removed from power in a 2020 impeachment. In fact, Peru has now had six presidents in the last five years. There have also been instances in the past of Peruvian presidents dissolving Congress. Famously, President Alberto Fujimori did this in 1992 in what was undoubtedly a coup d’état.

At the same time, what you have seen in Peru is a dismantling of the traditional party system. More than a dozen parties are now represented in Congress, which makes it hard for any one party to hold a majority.

In the case of Castillo, only around 15 members of Congress were from his party – a tiny minority in the 130-seat assembly. That made it hard for Castillo to form a strong base to push forward his agenda or protect him from impeachment proceedings.

Making matters of governance worse is the fact that there has been a collapse in trust for Peru’s political institutions and parties.

This all leads to an atomized political system – the old parties have disappeared, but no strong new parties have emerged. In this void have been individuals who have driven the political agenda, with no central force to govern cohesively.

Thrown into this is the political polarization that has affected much of the region, with the country increasingly split between the left and the right.

But it gets worse. Not only is the country polarized politically, it is split by ethnicity, region and class.

And this contributed to Castillo’s downfall?

Yes. From the beginning of his term the leftist former teacher was attacked by his many opponents in Congress for a variety of alleged grievances. He has governed over a worsening economy and faces a slew of corruption charges. Indeed, Castillo had already survived two attempts to impeach him before the events of Dec. 7, 2022 – and he only came to power in July 2021.

Recently, he was accused of treason after suggesting in a CNN interview that he would consider giving landlocked Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean. Suggesting that an apparent off-the-cuff comment amounted to treason might be pushing it. But on top of that, there were serious accusations of corruption against the president. By my count, there were five serious attempts by Congress to bring about malfeasance trials against Castillo.

How has he responded?

Castillo initially was hoping to get the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS) and tried to convince the regional body, which is tasked with, among other things, upholding democracy in the region, that his own Congress was trying to remove him in what he said was a coup. That may have worked – after all, he was a legitimately elected leader.

But before the OAS was due to hear a report into the allegations, things escalated, culminating in Castillo’s ouster.

So, both sides are claiming a coup? Any truth in those claims?

That is a discussion that will likely go on for a long time. Peru’s left will no doubt frame Castillo’s removal as a coup, while anti-Castillo politicians will insist it wasn’t. They will claim they were heading off a coup attempt from Castillo who, by dismissing Congress, was setting the stage to become a dictator-like leader.

My sense is what happened was Castillo was desperate and trying to defend himself from a Congress that was over-zealous about getting rid of him. But this is not to say they do not have grounds for doing so, as there does appear to be credible evidence of corruption.

Having said that, is that enough to say it was a coup – especially when it was brought about through constitutional measures? Perhaps not.

How have Peruvians reacted?

There have been some demonstrations, with people out on the street. But it has been so disorganized, it is hard to say who has been protesting for what and in support of whom. It also hasn’t developed into widespread protests.

Has there been concern from regional leaders and the U.S.?

We have seen the usual international appeals for calm, and the OAS has expressed its called for national unity.

Meanwhile, leftist leaders in the region have expressed support for the ousted Castillo. Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed concern but said it was a “constitutional removal.” Others, such as Bolivia’s President Luis Arce framed Castillo’s ouster as the “overthow” of a democratically elected government.

There has been very little comment of consequence from the U.S. other than welcoming the new president and urging democratic order. Both the U.S. and regional leaders are likely hoping that the political and economic instability that has plagued Peru in recent years ends. The concern is that ongoing chaos could affect regional stability, and also affect Peru’s position as a trading partner – the country is a large producer of copper and silver, among other mineral resources.

What could happen next?

There are a lot of ways this could play out. The new president has already called for a political truce and a government that represents all parties.

But whether she will be allowed to effectively govern given her lack of a mandate is in question. Boluarte is a legitimate president based on the constitutional process that saw her put in place. But she has no legitimacy in the sense of being democratically elected. She was also very closely aligned with Castillo.

A women in a yellow jacket raises her right hand in front of a Peruvian flag.
Dina Boluarte, Peru’s sixth president in five years.
Congress of Republic of Peru / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Perhaps the best thing she could do is call immediately for general elections so the people can have a say in what happens next.

But that could also be a risk, given the degree of political polarization in Peru. The country has seen a rise in xenophobic and nationalistic sentiment, due in part to high levels of immigration into the country.

Peruvians want a government that can actually govern. The fear, however, is that the country’s current conditions – economic and political instability mixed with polarization and growing xenophobia – could lend itself to the emergence of a far right populist.

The Conversation

As an academic and as director of a university research center, I’ve received funding from foundations, US government agencies, and multilateral institutions.

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What Are Iran's Morality Police? A Scholar Of The Middle East Explains Their History

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Protestors are pressing the Iranian regime for changes since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

Until recently, most people outside of Iran had never heard of the country’s morality police, let alone followed their wider role in the region. But on Sept. 16, 2022, the death of Jina Mahsa Amini sparked widespread protests in the streets of Iran and elsewhere that have shown no signs of abating. Amini had been in the custody of Gasht-e-Ershad, the Persian name of this notorious police force, for “improper wearing of hijab.”

On Dec. 4, reports citing Iran’s Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri suggested that the morality police had been abolished. Montazeri said that the morality police lacked judiciary power and that hijab laws were under review, which led to widespread speculation about whether the regime was trying to find a way forward.

Yet, there were those who doubted the comments and called it a “false flag” on the part of those in power. A few noted that even if the morality police were abolished and the mandatory wearing of the hijab repealed, the regime would still need to be held accountable for all of its human rights violations.

These sentiments have formed the basis of a three-day nationwide strike that began on Dec. 5 and has shuttered thousands of shops, including those in the historic Grand Bazaar in the heart of Tehran, bringing the economy of the country to a grinding halt.

But who are the morality police? Where did they come from? And what is their history during and before the Islamic Republic of Iran?

A vice squad in context

The mandate and power of morality police date back to before the Islamic Revolution that shook Iran in 1979, and their reach has extended throughout the Middle East.

The Quran says that it is imperative that religious leaders “ensure right and forbid wrong.” To carry this out, beginning at the time of the Prophet Mohammad, public morals were overseen by market inspectors referred to as muhtasib.

As a scholar of gender and feminism in the Middle East, I’ve studied the long history of debates about the role of Islam in regulating morality. The earliest evidence of a muhtasib, interestingly, was a woman selected in Medina by the prophet himself.

Over the centuries, the mandate of the muhtasib became focused on regulating dress, particularly for women. While these market inspectors were recorded as issuing fines and occasional lashings, they did not have the same level of authority as the judiciary.

By the early 20th century, however, the muhtasibs had transitioned into the vice squads, patrolling the streets to make sure people were complying with Islamic values. It was mostly in Saudi Arabia under the influence of Wahhabism that morality police forces first gained prominence and momentum. The first modern morality police force, an official committee charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” was formed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1926. Comprised mostly of men, the force was charged with enforcing modest dress, regulating heterosocializing – engagement with members of the opposite sex if unmarried or unrelated – and ensuring citizens attended prayer.

By 2012, more than one-third of the 56 countries making up The Organization for Islamic Cooperation had some form of religiously informed squadrons seeking to uphold right and forbid wrong as interpreted by Islamists in power.

A committee to enact revolution

In Iran, the morality police first appeared in the form of what was called the “Islamic Revolution Committee” following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shiite cleric who led the revolution, wanted to control the behavior of Iranian citizens after too many years of what he and his fellow Islamists called a period of “secular Westoxication.”

The Islamic Revolution Committee, called “Komiteh” by many Iranians, was merged in the 1980s with the Gendarmerie, the first rural police force overseeing modern highways, to form the Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1983, when mandatory veiling laws were passed, the Komiteh was tasked with ensuring these laws were upheld in addition to their other duties of ensuring right and forbidding wrong.

A changing time

The current morality police – the Guidance Patrol or Gasht-e-Ershad – were given formal standing as an arm of the police force by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

The group had been steadily growing in size since the 1980s, and by 2005 consisted of more than 7,000 officers. Women make up less than a quarter of the squadron but frequently accompany their male counterparts, who often arrive in unmarked vans and pour out into the streets in green uniforms. The women, meanwhile, wear black cloaks that cover them from head to toe.

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Komiteh was comprised of religiously devout followers of the regime who joined the force at the encouragement of clerics. However, by the early 2000s, Iran’s population was comprised mostly of young people. When Ahmadinejad made the Komiteh an official police force, a number of young men joined to fulfill their mandatory military conscription. This younger generation was more lax than their older counterparts, leading to inconsistent patrolling.

When President Ebrahim Raisi came to power in 2021, he emboldened the morality police to engage in harsh crackdowns on the Iranian populace, particularly in the cities. Raisi, like Khomeini and other clerics, used this vice squad to send a message to Iranian citizens that the regime is watching.

This clampdown, particularly when it led to the death of Amini, has been met with outrage by a large number of Iranians. While it is not yet confirmed whether or not the morality police have been disbanded, protesters are continuing to press the regime for change.

The Conversation

Pardis Mahdavi does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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